In Search of 'True' Vernacular Universals

Markku Johannes Filppula

1: Queen's University of Belfast, United Kingdom 2: University of Joensuu, Finland


The concept of ‘vernacular universals’ (VUs) has attracted a great deal of attention among variationist linguists in recent years. As conceived of by Jack Chambers, who launched this term, VUs are phonological and grammatical processes shared by vernaculars of all kinds: (nonstandard) social and regional dialects, child language, pidgins, creoles and interlanguage varieties. As such, they represent ‘natural’ features of the human language faculty, which are by no means limited to English (Chambers 2004: 128 f.). As good candidates for VUs, Chambers mentions morpheme-final consonant cluster simplification (pos’ office, han’ful), conjugation regularization (Mary heared the good news), subject-verb nonconcord (They was the last ones), and multiple negation or negative concord (He didn’t see nothing) (ibid.). While Chambers places VUs at the non-standard end of the standard – nonstandard (vernacular) continuum, there are alternative accounts that see the proper locus of VUs in varieties which have developed in second-language acquisition settings. ‘L2 varieties’, such as creoles or various ‘colonial’ Englishes, are in many ways different from nonstandard ‘L1’ varieties, such as the traditional rural dialects of England, for example (see, e.g. Mair 2003; Kortmann and Szmrecsanyi 2004). A suggested reason for these differences is the degree to which L1 and L2 varieties enter into contact with other varieties or languages.

In this paper I discuss a feature of English that is shared by (most kinds of) nonstandard varieties irrespective of their sociohistorical genesis as either L1 or L2 varieties and also irrespective of their levels of contact with other varieties or languages. The case at issue is the absence of plural marking with nouns of measurement, such as pound /foot /stone/mile/year etc. (as in two pound of flour; three mile away; ten year ago). Spoken language data collected from several varieties of English both in the British Isles and beyond show that absence of plural marking with measurement nouns is characteristic of both traditional ‘low-contact’ dialects of England and those which have emerged in different kinds of language contact or L2 settings (i.e. ‘high-contact’ varieties). There is also evidence to suggest that absence of plural marking is cross-linguistically widespread and can be explained by functional considerations. The existence of this kind of a universal adds an interesting new perspective to the ongoing debate on VUs.


Chambers, Jack (2004) ‘Dynamic typology and vernacular universals’. In Kortmann, B. (ed.) Dialectology meets Typology. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 127–145.

Kortmann, Bernd and Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt (2004) ‘Global Synopsis: Morphological and Syntactic Variation in English’. In Kortmann, B. and E. Schneider (eds) A Handbook of Varieties of English. Vol. 2: Morphology, Syntax, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1142-1202.

Mair, Christian (2003) ‘Kreolismen und verbales Identitätsmanagement im geschriebenen jamaikanischen Englisch’. In Vogel, E., Napp, A. and W. Lutterer (eds.) Zwischen Ausgrenzung und Hybridisierung. Würzburg: Ergon, 79–96.

Session: Paper session
Variation 2 (Grammar)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 09